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Column: ‘Secret’ plan would have paved over Gainesville square’s green space
Johnny Vardeman

Gainesville’s downtown square probably is greener today than it has been in years.

Lush foliage provides shade all over the mini-park that has served as the center of the city since its beginning more than two centuries ago. At a distance you can even see “Old Joe,” the Confederate statue that has stood there since 1909.

Looking at that priceless patch of green today, it’s hard to realize that at one time there was a secret plan to bulldoze that picturesque place and pave over it to provide more parking in the public square. It would have taken Old Joe with it, relocating it to who knows where. You can imagine how that went over with the United Daughters of Confederacy, which erected the statue and owns a perpetual lease on the plot it stands on.

The UDC, however, weren’t the only ones outraged by the plan. The idea was to go before the city commission (that’s what the city council was called then) for consideration in March 1977. Hall Countians who revere the green space in the middle of the square got word of the plan, and the commission pretty much deep-sixed it. The plan would have provided only 34 parking places.

The incident illustrates just how desperate downtown interests were for more parking back in the day.

Downtown was sizzling in the 1950s. Parking places were at a premium, not that they aren’t today in front of businesses. Studies showed that shoppers were willing to walk no more than the length of a football field to get to stores. Even today, many shoppers don’t want to walk far from their cars. By the 1960s, shopping centers began to sprout away from downtown. Storefronts around the square began to look desolate, vacated by those that followed the shopping centers.

In the late 1960s, merchants and downtown property owners, whose revenue was dwindling, formed the Downtown Development Corporation. They chose Milton Hardy as its first executive vice president. Hardy was just off a three-term stint on the city commission and had been a popular mayor.

Carl Lawson, Allen Doveton, Conrad Romberg and other prominent business people were on the corporation’s board.

They campaigned for a parking garage, of all things. They must be looking down from heaven today, smiling at the three parking garages that surround Gainesville’s square.

Parking meters were supposed to keep parking spaces turning over during that era. In addition, they brought $30,000 in revenue to the city, not a small sum back then.

As an experiment, the city agreed to cover the 528 parking meters for 90 days, but require a limit of two hours for free parking. Though somewhat resisted by then-Chief Hoyt Henry, police would enforce the two hours by marking tires of those parking in the two-hour spaces. Ninety days weren’t enough, so they tried it another 90 days, and in the end the parking meters became collectors’ items.

Downtown merchants also would validate tickets for free parking in the old Peck’s parking lot, next to the Gym of ’36, a block from the square.

Gainesville’s downtown is hopping today with varied developments either complete or under construction. The apartment village across what was once derided as the “Bridge to Nowhere” is filling fast.

Will people use the parking garages, or will there be demand for more spaces in years to come?

Valley Voices

“Valley Voices,” an outdoor play about life in Nacoochee Valley, is scheduled June 2-5 at the historic Hardman Farm near Helen.

The play, based on the book of the same title by author Emory Jones, will conclude an evening of live music and “Doc Johnson’s Miracle Medicine Show.” People are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets, but some seating will be available.

The production is being presented by the Friends of Hardman Farm and the Piedmont North Georgia Theater.

Gates will open at 5 p.m. for a tour of the 19 buildings on the property. Tickets are $20 plus taxes and fees. Food and drink will be available for purchase.

Gates will open at 11:30 a.m. for the 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5, performance. No food trucks will be available, so patrons are encouraged to bring picnic lunches.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.